California Joe

On one of his sojourns through Kansas at the end of a cattle drive, Omohundro found himself near Fort Hays, Kansas where he met an old mountain man named Moses Embree Milner, better known as “California Joe”. Joe had been a scout in the Mexican American War, and had later been kidnapped and escaped from a band of Ute Indians. He returned home, married a thirteen-year-old beauty, convinced her to honeymoon some two thousand miles away in California where he could prospect for gold, and fathered four children with her before deciding that domesticity might not be a lifestyle he was suited for.

"California Joe" Moses Embree Milner

California Joe traveled throughout the west, prospecting in Montana and Idaho, killing men in Texas (a dispute over cards), Montana (for jumping Joe’s claim), and Virginia (for kicking his dog). In 1867 Joe was hired as chief scout for Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer on General Winfield Scott Hancock’s (known to his troops as “Hancock the Superb”) expedition. Custer was instantly taken with Joe, bemused by the funny and talkative man who smoked his briar pipe from the back of his mule as he rode in line with the 7th Cavalry’s fine horses.

In My Life on the Plains, General Custer recounts his first meeting with Joe:


In concentrating the cavalry which had hitherto been operating in small bodies, it was found that each detachment brought with it the scouts who had been serving with them. When I joined the command, I found quite a number of these scouts attached to various portions of the cavalry, but each acting separately. For the purpose of organization, it was deemed best to unite them in a separate detachment, under command of one of their number. Being unacquainted with the merits or demerits of any of them, the election of a chief had to be made somewhat at random.
There was one among their number whose appearance would have attracted the notice of any casual observer. He was a man about forty years of age, perhaps older, over six feet in height, and possessing a well-proportioned frame. His head was covered with a luxuriant crop of hair, almost jet black, strongly inclined to curl, and so long as to fall carelessly over his shoulders. His face, at least so much of it as was not concealed by the long, waving brown beard and mustache, was full of intelligence, and pleasant to look upon. His eyes were handsome, black, and lustrous, with an expression of kindness and mildness combined. On his head was generally to be seen, whether awake or asleep, a huge sombrero, or black slouch hat. A soldier's overcoat, with its large, circular cape, a pair of trousers, with the legs tucked in the top of his long boots, usually constituted the make-up of the man whom I selected as chief scout. He was known by the euphonious title of 'California Joe;' no other name seemed ever to have been given him, and no other name appeared to be necessary.
This was the man whom, upon a short acquaintance, I decided to appoint chief of the scouts.

From left: Bill Comstock, Ed Guerrier, Thomas Adkins, and California Joe when they scouted for Custer in 1867.

California Joe was eventually demoted from chief scout to common scout after one particular losing battle with a whisky bottle and fell in with another scout he would quickly befriend, James “Wild Bill” Hickok. Milner would later describe Jack Omohundro as, “a pleasant man who made friends easily, a man with a smile and a joke for all, but very dangerous when his anger is aroused. During those days at Fort Hays [we] became warm friends.”


In 1874, Milner again scouted for General Custer on his expedition to the Black Hills, where Joe remained to prospect for gold when the expedition was over. He reconnected with his old friend Wild Bill in the Dakota Territory after Hickok left Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack's show The Scouts of the Plains, and was in or around Deadwood when Hickok was murdered by Jack McCall. Shortly after, California Joe was at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, where he got into an argument with Thomas Newcomb, reportedly over the death of Wild Bill Hickok. Both men drew their pistols, but California Joe convinced Newcomb to holster his weapon and have a drink. Later that day, while California Joe stood outside with a few friends, Tom Newcomb shot him in the back with a rifle, killing him.


California Joe Milner was buried at Fort Robinson, but later reintered at the National Cemetery at Fort McPherson, where his friend Texas Jack had once scouted for the Army with Buffalo Bill.



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